Playwright Henrik Ibsen premiered “A Doll’s House” in 1879. The play was about the original desperate housewife. Ibsen illustrated a 19th century woman discontent in a man’s world. His tackling the mores of the day was highly controversial. Although his plot of an unhappy wife ‘trying to find herself‘ has proved timeless, his dialogue and situations are less relatable for contemporary audiences. “A Doll House” might benefit from a fresh coat of paint. And Playwright Calamity West proves to be the gal for the job. West skillfully takes Ibsen’s Nora out of the past and gives her an 80s makeover.
The setting is Manhattan in 1989. The Berlin Wall is coming down, a country divided will be united. At Nora’s house, an old friend is visiting. The twelve year separation of her past and present is unraveling in her living room. Under the direction of James Yost, this ensemble is tight. Their characters are well-defined. In the lead, Jenifer Henry Starewich (Nora) plays socialite with a nice balance of coldness and fragility. Starewich’s victim mentality makes her believable as the object of affection. Starewich manipulates everyone, including the audience, to feel sorry for her. Her ability to garner sympathy even when caught in multiple lies is impressive.
The rest of the ensemble (Matthew David Gellin, Stella Martin, Adam Soule) circle Starewich like the biggest gift under the tree. They all want her to be what they want her to be. They all think they know her best. The dynamic is riveting. And their interactions have prickly intensity peppered with West’s sharp dialogue. Gellen, as the bullying husband, refuses to give Martin wine. Martin responds to his brutish manner with “you’re just a dick.” It’s one of the well-placed comedic moments within the drama. The humor helps establish the trio on equal footing. In another scene, Gellin demands to know how Soule got through the locked door. Soule’s perfectly matter of fact reply, “with this key.” The casual banter makes it funny and authentic.
I very much enjoyed the World Premiere of THE DOLL’S HOUSE PROJECT: IBSEN IS DEAD. The only speed bumps I had were the opening and closing scenes. They seemed stilted bookends to in otherwise volatile reality. Still, West writes it, Yost directs it and the ensemble acts it out like a not-so-friendly poker game. Everybody wants to win but what or who is the prize? The game playing is transfixing.
Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission
At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”
Written by Calamity West
Directed by James Yost
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru June 8th
Buy Tickets at www.athenaeumtheatre.org
Production photo by Emily Schwartz
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